Posted in COMRADES ADVICE

TEAM ASHWORTH COACHING

When entries opened for Comrades 2020 there was a crazy rush like we’ve never seen before and a complete sell-out of entries in under 3 days so now begins the hardest part of it all for the runners and that’s to get to that start-line in Pietermaritzburg on the 14th of June later this year.

For many – and there are a huge number of novices – this is going to be a new experience and sadly, many will get things completely wrong come Comrades day and they’ll have a long hot day out on the road and that could have been avoided had they trained correctly – but how does one do this?

Ask 5 different coaches or would-be coaches and you’ll probably get 5 different answers. One will tell you to do this and another will tell you to do that. One of the biggest secrets when you get yourself a coach is that these people generally know what they are doing (although I have come across a couple who don’t have a clue) so that being the case, when you think you’ve found the right coach, whatever you do – stick with that coach.

Jumping around from coach to coach is a disaster and won’t help you at all in the same way that taking advice from a dozen different people will have the same disastrous effect.

With more and more runners wanting to be able to tell the world that their running is improving, the demand for coaches to help runners get to that point, is increasing and no longer is it just the top or elite runners who are enlisting the services of a coach but the “ordinary” runner who is wanting to improve his or her time and doesn’t know how to go about this, is turning to coaches for help.

One of the latest coaches at the disposal of runners is “Team Ashworth Coaching”.   The name Ashworth is not an unknown one in the world of South African running and Ann Ashworth, winner on the 2018 Comrades is half the “Ashworth” part of this new coaching team.

Team Ashworth

Whilst Ann has been involved in coaching the runners in her club “Team Massmart” since the establishment of the club some two years ago, we’ve seen a huge improvement from many of the ladies who run for Massmart and that’s where Ann will continue to focus, it is husband, David, who has given up his job as a teacher to coach fulltime.

David has been coaching for a couple of years on a low key basis and has had success with some of those he’s coached but his credentials need to be known. A green number runner at Comrades (he got his green number in 2019) with a best Comrades time of 6:24 in 2018 and a best marathon time of 2:31, David certainly knows what he’s talking about.

David Ashworth gets his Green Number from the late Jackie Mekler

 

I sat down with David Ashworth to find out more about the new “Team Ashworth Coaching”.

DJ:      Whilst you call yourselves “Team Ashworth Coaching”, as I understand it, you’ll be doing most of the coaching of runners needing a coach whilst Ann continues to focus mainly on the ladies of “Team Massmart” and her career as an advocate with very little in the way of general coaching?

DA:     Because Ann is very involved in her work as an advocate and administration of Team Massmart, I have taken over as the official coach of Team Massmart, coaching a number of the ladies there. I am fortunate to be working with an amazing team of elite ladies such as Lizzy Ramadamitja, the first black South African female to achieve a gold medal in 9 years at last year’s Two Oceans Marathon.

Ann & David at the finish line of Comrades and both under 6:30

 

DJ:      Will she be involved with the elite ladies at Massmart?

 

DA:     There are basically three categories of athletes at Massmart. You’ve got the “Elites” the “Sub-Elites” and the “Development” athletes who can’t afford to get into running seriously and those are coached at no cost to them. That’s where Ann gives back to running in a big way. She doesn’t go out and get athletes who are already performing or poach from existing clubs, but instead, goes out and finds talented athletes who do not have the means to take their running to the next level. Ann recently took on 10 ordinary athletes who do not have the means or support to reach their dream of running the Comrades marathon.

 

 DJ:      What qualifies you as a coach? There are some that I know of who simply set themselves up and don’t actually know what they are doing despite telling the world that they do.

 

 DA:     I’ve learnt from a number of top coaches over the years and I’ve learnt a lot of different coaching styles from them, people like Andrew Bosch, Lungile Bikwani, John Hamlett, Lindsey Parry and Neville Beeton and then as far as the academic side of it is concerned, I’ve done ASA Level 1 coaching, Sports Science Institute: Training essentials and programme design for endurance running, Sports Science Institute: Cycling Science – The essentials of cycling physiology and coaching,

Also, as part of my B.Ed Degree studies, I sub-majored in Physical Education. This included training, coaching, and physiology,

and I’ve done a lot of research and a lot of reading on coaching and coaching methods so I’ve covered a fair amount of coaching training.

 

DJ:      From the things you’ve picked up from these various coaches and courses, have you developed your own coaching methods and do you stick with that for all your athletes?

DA:     There isn’t one coaching method for everyone so it follows then that, it differs for every athlete. Training must fit into the lifestyle of that particular runner. Some athletes do better on high mileage whilst others do better on low mileage so we have to factor this in when designing a programme. An athlete should stick with one coach for some time so that as a team, they can find out what works and what does not work for them. Simply put, there’s no “one size fits all” and each athlete gets a unique plan.

 

DJ:      Let’s assume I come to you with a marathon time of 4 hours, or a Comrades time of 10:15 so I am really towards the back of the field and I would really like to improve on that. Firstly would you take that sort of person and secondly, what do you think a runner of that calibre could get to? I would think that a sub 3 hour marathon is pretty much out of the question as is a silver at Comrades. How do you establish a person’s limit?

 

 

DA:     To answer your first question; I assist athletes who have only started running, all the way up to elite level. Second, you’ve got to be realistic about what that person wants to achieve and you can only do that over a period of time. There isn’t a set pattern for everybody so it’s a case of looking carefully at individual performances and guiding that person to their reach their goal. A coach should not place a limit on an athlete, however, realistic goal setting in collaboration with the athlete to reign in an over-enthusiastic expectation is sometimes necessary. A 4-hour marathoner can achieve a sub-3 time. Many factors must be considered: age, weight, how long they have been running, and so much more will all contribute to their potential ability.

 

 DJ:      I remember that when I ran my best Comrades in 1975, it was 8:29 and to this day I firmly believe that 8 hours was my limit. What would you have done to get me – perhaps – to 8 the hours that I so desperately wanted but never achieved?

 

 DA:     I would have looked at your existing training programme to establish what, if any, periodization there was. I would look at how you progressively build up the mileage and see what Comrades-specific training sessions were incorporated (keep in mind that the ‘up’ and the ‘down’ runs are completely different races). I’d also look at your recovery – the key to a successful training strategy is having sufficient rest and recovery.

 

 DJ:      So I want to run Comrades this year. I have already qualified at Kaapsehoop and I did 3:55 which is Batch D at the start and that’s not too bad but I do want to get to Batch C where I would really like to be and out of the masses at the start? Do you work on my speed or my strength and endurance to get me to Batch C?

 

DA:     I would focus on both speed and endurance. I would also prefer to do the qualifying marathon on a flat course rather than a downhill course like Kaapsehoop. I think it’s not great to use a downhill route for a fast time because of the damage you do to your muscles and joints. I would also exercise caution against putting too much emphasis on racing too close to Comrades. You may find that you run a pretty good time in a situation where you are relaxed and not trying to run so hard.

 

DJ:      It’s no secret that I am a big exponent of LSD (Long Slow Distance) and whilst I may not have been the fastest runner back then I always had plenty of reserve for that dreaded second half and I firmly believe that came from my LSD. You views on LSD?

 

DA:     LSD should be present in every runner’s training. The latest research by Dr. Stephen Seiler reveals that polarized training carries huge benefits in one’s training. Polarized training is similar to 80/20 training in which 80% of running is done at extremely low effort and only 20% at maximal. It won’t make you a slow runner as people are lead to believe. What it does is it saves you from being fatigued on the fast and hard training sessions.

The basic concept has been followed by the Kenyans, cross-country skiers, rowers etc. It’s VERY difficult for the average runner to train this way. The ‘easy’ runs that most follow are not easy enough and have a huge negative effect on the body. They’re not fast enough to get the benefit of a speed session, but are too slow for a quality session. It is a kind of no-man’s land. So, to answer your question… I know that most get it completely wrong.

 

DJ:      Explain what you mean by that because you seem to have two differing views on the subject where you say “It’s VERY difficult for the average runner to train this way. The ‘easy’ runs that most follow are not easy enough and have a huge negative effect on the body. It’s not fast enough and is too slow for a quality session” so what is the best speed at which to train and do you work on that with your runners?

 

DA:     What I mean by that is that it’s very easy to run too fast when we’re supposed to be running easy. When you look at the way your body is responding in terms of where your heart rate is compared to where your heart rate should be. You should be running at a speed where you could be running the whole day at that speed. All heart rate zones and paces are based off percentages of the runner’s threshold values, which are tested at regular intervals.

 

 

So there you have it if you’re looking for a coach to help you get to the finish on “the big day” in mid-June in the best possible shape, take a look at the Team Ashworth Coaching website at www.teamashworth.co.za and you’ll get all the information you need as well as different coaching options and costs.

Train well – and see you in Durban and don’t forget the other part of your training where you focus on getting to know the route for the Down Run. That’s essential. You’ll find that on COMRADES DOWN RUN ROUTE 2020   

 

 

           

JANUARY 2020

Posted in COMRADES ADVICE

HOW LONG & WHAT SPEED IS LSD? :

It’s important to understand that this article is not aimed at the people who are in line for a gold or even a silver medal at Comrades.  I have said many times that never having been in those exalted positions, I am not qualified to comment on or give advice to those runners.

 

I have just read a very good article written by Bruce Fordyce about the fact that April is the most crucial training month for Comrades and I totally agree. 

FORDYCEBruce on the way to one of his wins

 

I dug out my own logbook from days gone by and every April was my big distance month – and it paid off.  The year I ran my best – and remember that my best was only 8:29 (so hardly a threat to the winner), I did two runs over 60km and one over 50 in April and then another of just under 60km in the first weekend of May.  I have always been a firm believer in LSD.

But what exactly is LSD?  It stands for Long Slow Distance and not the stuff that was freely available at Woodstock in 1969!  So what is “Long” and what speed is “Slow”? 

A lot of runners these days regard a 20km or a 25km as LSD and sometimes even as little as 15km!  I don’t think that’s LSD and neither do some of the runners who should know about these things.  In his article to which I referred at the start, Bruce Fordyce says that a “long run” should be between 40 and 70km.  I asked Bruce what he considers as being the speed that an average “slower runner” should be doing in a race that is being treated as a training run and we fully understand that many Comrades runners take part in races during April and May for a variety of very valid reasons.  Bruce tells me that he thinks those runs should be an hour slower than race pace and then it’s a training run and as Bruce says “It’s about time on your feet in April”. So if you are a 4 hour runner for the marathon, do the 42kms in close to 5 hours. 

If you’re a 4:45 runner in a marathon, it would be difficult to slow down by an hour in a race over a distance of 42km so listen then, to the advice from Ann Ashworth the 2018 Women’s Comrades Champ, about the speed she suggests for a good training speed in April.

ANN FINISH LINEAnn Ashworth breaking the tape to win the women’s 2018 Comrades

 

She told me that she tells her athletes to “run at conversational speed, in other words they must be able to hold a normal conversation throughout the run”.  This is great advice because it covers any runner at any speed ability. What Ann is saying is that if you are battling to talk in normal conversation terms, you are running too fast for a training run!

Ann tells me that she thinks the right thing is about 3 (or maybe even 4) runs of 50km to 60km in a Comrades build up in April.

When I think back the “conversational runs” were pretty much the way I ran in all my long training runs. They were considerably slower than my race pace, we didn’t bother with the time it took us and the group I was running with, chatted, laughed and joked the entire way. Some of the jokes had been told before but we laughed again anyway!  I remember doing training runs on the Comrades route from Pietermaritzburg to Pinetown which is around 65km and taking around 8 hours to do them depending on seconding stops and that sort of thing.

We certainly weren’t in any hurry but you have no idea what a boost those long runs gave me. It meant firstly that my legs could do that distance so they were taken care of for Comrades day because I have always said that if your legs can do 60 or 65kms they can certainly do the 87km needed for Comrades this year.

It also gave me a huge mental boost knowing that I could do the distance without any stress and I could go into Comrades knowing that barring any major problem I would have no trouble getting to the finish in the 11 hours we had available back then and if I did have a major problem as happened in 1976, I still had time.  1976 was a shocker for me with severe cramp from before half way but I still managed 10:06.

It’s important to remember that I was never a top runner in my Comrades running years but I started 14 of them and finished 14 of them and didn’t need medical attention at the finish of any of them, and that included the 1971 Comrades that we’re told was the longest Comrades of them all where I finished in under 10 hours despite the fact that I was forced to walk the last 20 km because I had ITB in the days before we knew what ITB was!  That walk of the last 20km wasn’t a physical thing at all.  It couldn’t be because my knee was wrecked.  The LSD training kicked in when the “90% of Comrades is above the neck” part had to take over.  On that day in 1971 it certainly did.

A short while ago, I read a training tip by Comrades coach Lindsey Parry where he advised that if you have Comrades in mind that you shouldn’t be racing any marathons or ultras from now to Comrades and there are a few of both categories on the calendar.

LINDSEY PARRYComrades coach Lindsey Parry

 

What he said was “No more racing. This applies to marathons and ultras. They should not be raced and you don’t want to be chasing seeding in your peak training block. For those who need to qualify, you should aim to run at the minimum possible effort to qualify and use the race as a training run.”   Sadly many runners will ignore that very sound advice.

So what is LSD during the month of April that is so important to get into your legs and to spend time on your feet?

I think that depends to a large degree on individual runners and the times you are able to run in Comrades but one thing I do know is that LSD is not 15km or 20km or even 25km as some runners think.  Don’t think that running three or four half marathons in April and nothing much more is going to make your Comrades day easier. I don’t believe it will.  It may get you to the finish but it will in all probability also get you a visit to the medical tent at the finish.  In chatting to the man who heads the medical facilities at Comrades, Jeremy Boulter, he tells me that the majority of those needing attention in the medical facilities at the end, finish in the last two hours of the race and in most cases are undertrained.

I’ve been on the road in recent years and seen the looks on the faces of the runners in the “Rescue Busses”.  They might have avoided the medical tent at the finish but they have also avoided that precious Comrades medal and in many cases (not all I agree) that’s as a result of inadequate training.

In the article that Bruce wrote and to which I referred at the start he says the thinking behind long runs, is that they build the stamina, endurance and strength that is so essential for Comrades and I agree with him.  I doubt that you can do that on 20km or 25km runs alone.  In my running days I did the long training runs to build my stamina, endurance and strength – both physical and mental and it worked – 14 times!

The important thing to understand is that we don’t all have the ability of a gold medallist or even a silver medallist if we are the average runner and that one should therefore, aim to do whatever is within your ability for your own LSD runs.  I know that when I was running long runs at the weekend, I would never do more than one long run over a weekend.  I knew my limitations.  Some people have said that had I done two long runs over the same weekend, my times would have been a lot better but I don’t think so.  I wasn’t built to do that sort of running and I’m not convinced that back to back runs over a weekend for the average runner is a great idea anyway, but that’s my opinion.

So bottom line is that April is the biggest distance month in the build up to Comrades. It’s not a good idea to race any marathon or ultra but instead treat them as training runs. 

So if you’re wanting a good day on the 9th of June, listen to what Bruce Fordyce says about training runs when he says it’s all about time on your feet. Listen to what Lindsey Parry says that you shouldn’t chase a PB or better seeding in April.  Listen to what Ann Ashworth says when she says that your training runs should be at a pace where you can hold the conversation with your fellow runners throughout the run.

It’s not too late to get those long runs in for Comrades. Do them this month and you won’t regret it. Most people running Comrades this year have a 42km under their belt already as a qualifier so to run three or four long runs in April shouldn’t be a problem.

 

 

APRIL 2019

Posted in PERSONAL OPINION

COMRADES – THE GREAT LEVELLER :

A little over 50 years ago, shortly before I ran my first Comrades, I read an article in a Durban newspaper entitled “Comrades – The Great Leveller” and over the years since then, I have often thought about that article as various things have happened during this race.  I have seen race leaders with a substantial lead just 20km from the finish end up just scraping into the gold medals or not finishing at all and I wonder how many people, both runners and spectators have ever thought about the subject of that article?

A couple of years ago, Comrades themselves used the theme “It Will Humble You” and I wrote something at the time in which I expressed my thoughts about how this event can in fact humble one.

I was challenged by someone who said that a road race and especially Comrades, can’t humble anyone but yet the very person who challenged me has been humbled by Comrades and when I sit down and think about it, I know of many more people who have been humbled by Comrades.

I am just one of those who has been humbled by this race on more than one occasion but the biggest lesson I got was in 1976 when I was going for my best time. I had trained for it and I knew I could do it but just a few minutes over 3 hours into the race I ran into trouble in the form of cramp.

Prior to that I had never suffered from cramp (as opposed to sore and stiff muscles) while running and this was my 9th Comrades so there was absolutely no reason for it to have happened that day – but it did and I ended up running just over two hours slower than I had planned, and my second half was slower than the winner that year (it was Alan Robb who won in 5:40:39) took to run the entire race.

ALAN ROBB 1978 FINISH

If that is not being humbled I don’t know what is and I know of many runners who can tell you stories of how they “came undone” in Comrades and ended up either not finishing or having serious problems on the road and finishing a lot slower than they had planned. 

I could rattle off a long list of names but I won’t because it doesn’t take a lot of thought to go back through the history of Comrades and to find many of the people who have suffered the indignity of being humbled by this road race.

Comrades is bigger than any of us when that gun is fired to start the race.

So back to where I started when I said that Comrades can be regarded as the great leveller but what exactly does that mean?

Well, as I see it, and this can be seen almost every year when Comrades organisers take the number of people who have entered and publish the jobs and professions of the runners and how many people fall into each category and you’ll find some of the entrants are company directors or well-known surgeons or some other equally elevated profession many of which come with a reasonably high social status.

At the other end of the scale, you find manual labourers, waiters and, sadly, unemployed people but the big thing is that when that gun fires to start Comrades, every one of those people are equal and their position in life and the amount of money they have and their fame mean absolutely nothing.

On the road between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, the top surgeon in the country, if he’s running, could find himself spending many hours running alongside, talking to and bonding with the lowest paid person in the race and what they are in life and the status they might have means nothing at all. Not a thing and in many cases it’s probably unlikely that they’ll even bother to ask each other about their status in life. They have far more important things to think about on Comrades day.

CAMPERDOWN

They are all exactly the same as they struggle together up the hills in Comrades and as they share their thoughts about the race and stop together at a refreshment station for that well deserved drink.

It doesn’t end there though. It is completely possible that the labourer and his boss could start together but it is also completely possible that the labourer finishes a good few hours ahead of his boss. Whatever position the boss might hold in the company compared to that of the labourer means nothing – absolutely nothing – on that road when Comrades is held.

So basically what I am getting at, is that it matters not what position or so-called social status you may hold in life or how much money you might have in the bank and how fancy a house you might live in and how expensive a car you might drive, all those things mean nothing.  On Comrades day everybody is equal where all your wealth and status, or perceived lack of it, count for nothing. 

All that matters is that you all get to the finish and the fancy house in which you live and the fancy car you drive and your big salary aren’t going to help you to get to the finish ahead of the runner who has none of those things.

Go to the finish or even sit at the side of the road to watch the race and watch the runners and nobody asks them how much or how little they earn when they offer to help each other to reach their goal. Those runners are simply “comrades” together on that day.

Imagine what a wonderful place South Africa would be if everybody in the country behaved towards each other in the same way as they do on Comrades day. 

I don’t think it matters whether you’re a gold medallist or whether you scrape home just before the 12 hour gun, on Comrades day I believe everyone is equal and I think it can best be summed up by Caroline Wostmann who won the women’s race in 2015 and had that awful run in 2016 and although she finished second, something that many people would be happy to do, she said   “When I crossed the finish line I learnt that winning is not about coming first but rather about challenging yourself to the limit, pushing the boundaries and walking away from the experience a better, stronger person.”

Every runner has the same distance to cover, the same hills to climb, the same refreshment stations to use and the same stiff and sore legs.  It matters not one bit who or what you are on Comrades day or what colour skin you might have because every single person in that race (and I’m not talking about athletic ability here) is exactly the same. 

There’s no doubt in my mind that Comrades is the great leveller.

Posted in COMRADES ADVICE

RESPECT COMRADES. IT’S FUN BUT NO JOKE :

So your Comrades entry for 2019 is in and you’ve had confirmation from the organisers that they’ve received it – so now what? 

Easy.  All you now have to do is to run a qualifier before the beginning of May and pitch up at the start of Comrades on the 9th of June, but is it really that simple?

With the right approach, I think it is, and I honestly think that the right approach is not hard to achieve.

During the last couple of years I’ve asked myself the question, more than once, whether my relationship with the Comrades Marathon is a passion or an obsession.  I don’t really know what the answer is because the two words are pretty closely related except that one of them conjures up thoughts that are not quite as nice as the other but look at the dictionary and you will find that the word “emotion” features in both definitions so I guess it doesn’t matter too much which it is.

Suffice to say that I have a pretty deep feeling about that strip of tarmac between KZN’s two cities and I am not able to explain it but ridicule the race or don’t treat it with the respect it deserves and I won’t treat you with the sympathy you would perhaps like if you run it and come horribly “unstuck” during the race. This isn’t something new. I’ve felt this way going back as long as I can remember to my very early days to when I first started running Comrades.

Go into Comrades with no respect for the race, come undone and suffer badly and it’s your problem and you’ll get no sympathy from me and I was sitting thinking about the way I feel about people who take part in the race and who, especially in their first run, don’t take it seriously.  It doesn’t often happen to people who have run it more than once. Those people have learnt that Comrades deserves respect and they give it the respect it deserves.

I have often heard novices say they are really scared and my reaction is always that they shouldn’t be scared of Comrades but if they are properly prepared both physically and mentally for Comrades they need to respect it but not fear it. To my mind there’s a very big difference.

I have never feared Comrades but I have certainly respected it.  I have run it 14 times, finished it within the time limit all 14 times and respected it every time and I believe that’s how I was able – even when I suffered badly – to finish the race and to go home with my Comrades medal every time a ran.

Some people regard it as something of a giggle when they enter and right up to the start and even into the race and perhaps even as far as the first 30km or so and until they start to hurt just that little bit when the first of the hills starts to “talk” to them and there is a tiny change of opinion. Comrades has put people into hospital and ICU with such things as renal failure and which sadly in some cases has even claimed the lives of runners who have gone into Comrades perhaps not as prepared as they should be because they think they know better.

In days gone by when we were asked where Comrades started the answer was always “at the 60km mark because anyone can run that. It’s the rest of it that’s the problem” and that’s always been and still is the case.  I was driving between Durban and Pietermaritzburg recently and when I got to Cato Ridge I had visions of my own Comrades days of getting there and remembering what it felt like to be there and that sometimes that feeling of despair knowing there was still over 25km to go and that I was tired but at the same time I was fit and had trained for this.

I heard recently about one entrant who had a longest run of a qualifying marathon in a time of around 4:14 which she considered made her a fast runner and as a result she intended starting Comrades fairly fast. She had no intention of studying the route or listening to anyone talking about the dangers of the first 25km of the Up Run or the first 20km of the Down Run because she felt she didn’t need to do this.  She also saw no need to run any other long runs in preparation for Comrades. She had done a 42Km run and done it quickly!   Somebody should have mentioned to her that a 4:14 marathon isn’t exactly quick and that it’s pretty average and slightly slower that 6 minutes per km!

Unless she is Supergirl in disguise, that particular lady was going to be in for a very long and painful day on Comrades day if she is able to make it past the 60km mark which seemed doubtful.  I had a problem feeling sorry for her. That sort of arrogance didn’t deserve any sort of sympathy.  The problem however is that she could have become a negative statistic that Comrades really doesn’t need. I have no idea whether she finished that year or not.

I have often heard people say “If Comrades was easy then everyone would do it” but not everyone does it because it’s not easy.  Speak to cyclists and many will tell you that they stick to cycling because it’s easier than running.  I am an avid Twitter follower and there was a Tweet I really enjoyed by someone I don’t know that appeared that read

“Running is stupidly hard.  It’s worth doing once in a while to remind oneself how good an idea the bicycle is”

He said it – not me!

I know one young lady who, a couple of years ago claimed to be very fit and I think she was, so she entered for, and completed, the Iron Man in Port Elizabeth.   I’m told that this event is very tough and you are quite something if you can complete it.

About six weeks later she took part in Comrades. She ended up in ICU in hospital for 4 days with renal failure.  No problem with Iron Man. Comrades put her into ICU.

Comrades is not a joke and it should never be treated as a joke.  I have seen some very sick people at the finish of Comrades.

The Comrades doctor told me that the majority of the people treated in the medical tent at the finish of the race suffer from exhaustion as a result of under training yet we see runners year after year treating this race as something of a joke.

 

The wakeup call on Comrades day I would imagine, is when you realise that after your qualifier distance, you are only at around half way, and you have the same distance to do again and then a little bit more all on the same day.  Sure you need to be mentally strong but if you are physically weak for distance running from not training properly, then your mental strength has nothing with which to work.

In 2016, the Comrades banner was “Comrades – It Will Humble You” and there are thousands of us who have been humbled by this race and who have prepared properly and it’s still happened.

I clearly remember the 1976 Comrades and I was probably fitter than I had ever been.  I had run my best ever in 1975 and I was aiming to do even better in 1976. It was a Down Run and I was on schedule at Cato Ridge at around the 30km mark but by the far end of Harrison Flats, just a few kilometres further I felt a niggle in the muscle at the top of my right knee that definitely shouldn’t have been there.

I wasn’t too worried about it, but by the time I got to Drummond I had decided to adjust my finish time by an hour that would still give me a comfortable 9 hours although the muscle was getting worse.

Alan Robb won his first Comrades that year and I ran the second half quite a bit slower than Alan had run the entire race because of that muscle at the top of my knee and that in the year I was aiming for my best ever Comrades.

I understand fully what the 2016 Comrades banner read “Comrades – It Will Humble You”.  It certainly humbled me in 1976.  I was over two hours slower than the time I knew I could run and the time I had set out to run all because of a muscle at the top of my knee.

The question I ask myself then is how am I supposed to feel about these people who have no respect for this thing which is something that for me is such a passion and for which I and so many others who have run that road many times have such respect?

If you’re reading this and you’re going to be running your first Comrades this year and fear is starting to build up as you read, please don’t let fear be there. I have said to many runners and particularly to many novice runners that they shouldn’t fear Comrades but they should certainly respect it.  That they should respect it whether it’s their first Comrades, their 10th Comrades or their 20th.

I have taken people to see Comrades as spectators.  People who have never seen the race before and the reaction has been amazing but usually along the lines of “how do they do it”?

It doesn’t matter how many times one has run it, one should always respect it because Comrades is bigger than any of us and it deserves our respect.

 

November 2018

Posted in PERSONAL OPINION

WHY RUN COMRADES? :

We’re getting towards the beginning of August and that means in just a month’s time entries for Comrades 2019 will open and if we look at the speed at which entries were snapped up for 2018 I have no doubt the same thing is going to happen again for next year albeit an up run which, incidentally, I have always preferred.

This means that a tremendous number of novices, fired up by Comrades 2018, will, in all probability, be giving serious thought to tackling the road between Durban and Pietermaritzburg on the 9th of June 2019

I’ve been around Comrades a very long time.  In fact, I’ve been around Comrades longer than most people have and I have often been asked “Why run it because it can’t be good for you.”

I know one chap who won’t run it for that very reason. He feels that he would rather give Comrades a miss than risk any sort of permanent damage to himself.  I feel very sorry for him because of what he’s missing but that’s the decision he’s made and I would never try to change his mind. He’s of the opinion that Comrades is simply a race to see who can get to the finish in the fastest time and is not really any different to any other race.

It’s so very much more than that. Only 51 men have been able to win this race but many more have tried to do so and failed but it’s not the winners I want to talk about.

It’s the ordinary runner. The person who has perhaps watched it on TV for the last number of years and has finally taken the decision to run Comrades and earn that prized medal.  Comrades is, however, much, much more than just that very precious medal but make no mistake, it is a very precious medal.  Small in size but massive in meaning.

20151130_163928

Let me try to explain.

I have a couple of permanent injuries because I ran all those Comrades all those years ago in shoes that one could hardly call ideal but I have often said to people that had I been told when I was 21, and I was about to run my first Comrades that when I reached 70, I would be suffering from a very bad back and very bad knees because of those Comrades, I would still have run the fourteen I ran, because Comrades gave me so much more than it ever took away from me and it did that in so many different ways, not only in the running world but in life in general.

Allow me to give you just a few examples of the things Comrades can offer you for the taking and all you have to do is to realise that they are there and take them and use them.   

There’s the old saying that Comrades isn’t easy because if it was, then everyone would do it, but it’s not easy and this is confirmed by that very small overall number of people who have done it since it was first run in 1921.

We’re not sure of the exact number who have run Comrades since it started but we guess between 150,000 and 200,000 but as a percentage of people from the eligible age and health group in a country that now has 57 million people of whom probably at least 15 million are in the right age and health group to take part, it is pretty small percentage.

In fact it wasn’t until around 2000 that the numbers actually picked up when the race organisers increased the time limit to 12 hours making it that much more accessible to many more people who might otherwise not have attempted it, have the numbers increased in any significant way.

There are other factors that come into play obviously, such as the restriction on the number of entries that the narrow “old road” can safely handle as well as the facilities at both ends of the race.  Imagine an entry the size of one of the major overseas city marathons trying to fit onto the road through Drummond!

Then there’s this inexplicable thing of why it is that so many of us go back and run it again and again and if you ask anyone who has run more than once, why they’ve done so, you’ll get a variety of answers many of which don’t really make a lot of sense.

Many years ago I sat down and something came to me and I put it down and when Comrades themselves saw it they even used part of it on their banners for the 1999 race and on the front of the runners’ T shirts that year and the “verse” they chose to use from what some people called a poem, was 

It’s something that changes lives forever

and makes those who do it different

Not only to others but to themselves.

It takes ordinary people who struggle to achieve mediocrity

and allows others to look up to them in awe.

COMRADES T SHIRT 1999

What I was getting at in the verse I quoted above when I said that Comrades takes ordinary people and allows others to look up to them in awe is seen in the reaction of non-runners who find out that you have run Comrades. It takes ordinary people who are no more than mediocre in most things they do in life and allows them to move beyond that mediocrity somehow. They are suddenly seen in a different light.

It certainly did that for me and people still look at me in awe when they find out how many I ran – and I only ran 14 of them. That’s nothing compared to some people.

The other thing I have always found amazing and I recently had a huge disagreement with the same non-Comrades runner I’ve mentioned, who regards Comrades as he does any other road race, about this because he simply couldn’t understand it, was that people very seldom ask me what my Comrades times were, but are far more interested in the number I’ve run and the response to that is then “WOW”.

To the ordinary public, Comrades times don’t mean a lot. The number of times you’ve run Comrades means a huge amount!  To the ordinary South African there’s a kind of magic associated with Comrades.  A magic that’s difficult, if not impossible, to explain to someone like my non-Comrades running friend.

Comrades is more than simply a road race between two of KZN’s cities. It’s a lesson about life and if you come away from Comrades having learnt nothing then it’s best to have a good hard look at yourself because you’re missing something important.

One of the many things it taught me is that sometimes we throw away the opportunity to do things better than we actually end up doing them.

My final Comrades in 1987 was a fairly hot day, and at the time I didn’t know it was my final Comrades as the injury that eventually stopped me from running hadn’t made itself known at that stage. It did very shortly after that and before I had the chance to run my 15th.

On that Comrades morning I stood at the start line prepared to run under 9 hours.  I had run under 9 hours a couple of times before and close to it a further few times so I knew I was capable of doing it and I had trained to do it again but when I realised how hot it was and how hot it was going to be my attitude was “I couldn’t be bothered” and I ran to a very sociable 10:14 and that was way slower than the limit of my ability and I knew it was.

In hindsight it was NOT the right thing to have done and I still regret it over 30 years later when I stupidly decided to run my sub 9 “next year” but “next year” never came because the permanent injury and the end of my running came instead.

I should have aimed for it because I could have done it had I tried – if only I had tried but now it’s too late. How many of us do things like that? Not only in our running but with many other things in life.

We don’t give it our all “because we couldn’t be bothered” just as I had done on that Comrades morning in 1987 and we never get the opportunity again. That’s very sad and even worse when we can look back and realise that we have done it to ourselves.

It was after that 1987 Comrades that I messed up because of my “couldn’t be bothered” attitude that I was most successful in business and other things I tried. There was no way I was going to adopt that attitude again and lose any more opportunities in life!

Just one thing of many things Comrades taught me.

Back to my original question though. Why do people run Comrades?  Is it a challenge? It’s certainly that without any doubt and with the time limit having been increased to 12 hours instead of the old 11 hour limit, this has made the challenge a bit more accessible to a lot more people.

Does this mean that it’s a lot easier?

Not at all.  It’s just a lot more accessible to a lot more people. Durban and Pietermaritzburg are still where they have always been and on the Down Run this year the total distance was a touch over 90km and the third longest Comrades ever, so it was certainly a challenge.

comrades finish 2018

PHOTO: pdgpix.com

To cover 90km on foot in under 12 hours is a challenge make no mistake. It’s a huge physical challenge to the ordinary person but what is probably an even bigger challenge is the mental aspect of it all. When you’re out there on the road on Comrades day it’s just you and the road to the finish and you get the opportunity to prove to yourself exactly what you’re made of and that’s another thing Comrades taught me.  I learnt not to give up on something I had started and that was something that was to stand me in good stead in ventures in later years.

The runners up at the front are in a race against other runners but those further back are in a race against themselves or against the clock.  If you’re in your personal race against the clock, very few people actually care what time you run.  Will I do this? Can I do this?  People are more interested in whether you finished rather than the time in which you finished. To a non-runner your time doesn’t mean much and other runners are more interested in their own times than they are in your time.

When you are on that stretch of road still some distance from the finish and every part of your body is screaming for you to stop and your legs are aching and your head is telling you that you can’t actually go on but you know that you must go on because you need to do this that’s when you learn about yourself and those words were never more real.

It’s something that changes lives forever

and makes those who do it different

Not only to others but to themselves.

 

That’s why you run Comrades.

 

July 2018

Posted in PERSONAL OPINION

COMRADES ISN’T HARD :

We’re into March and most Comrades runners should by now be well into their Comrades training and I’ve just read Bruce Fordyce’s latest blog in which he says it’s now time to start training hard for Comrades and I totally agree with him. March used to be when I started the serious stuff in my running days but it’s not the physical training I want to talk about.

I have often been asked by “ordinary runners” – as opposed to the elite or even those running for silver medals – if Comrades is hard and my answer has always been the same.  Comrades isn’t hard. 

By implication, that would mean that Comrades must be easy and I can immediately hear runners and “would be” Comrades runners saying that I must be completely round the bend.  If Comrades wasn’t hard, then everybody would be doing it.

When you consider that in the 92 years we have had Comrades, we have had something like 120,000 different people who have run Comrades (that is something of a guess) and that is only a very small percentage of the total population of the country who could qualify to take part that, so if it is “easy”, why then do so few people actually take part and why have so few people taken part since the race started in 1921?

The answer, I believe, is fairly simple. Getting to the start line of Comrades is hard but Comrades itself, if you’ve prepared properly both physically and mentally, is not hard.

I started off by excluding the elite or professional runners and those running for silver medals etc. because I know nothing about how they feel on Comrades day.  I have never been there so I can’t comment on what it feels like to run Comrades at 5 minutes a km or faster but I can comment on what it feels like when you are running a Bill Rowan or slower because I have run in both those categories and its those runners I’m wanting to “talk” to in this blog.

The first big challenge is to commit to running Comrades, often from having done little or nothing at all in the way of exercise previously in many cases. I know one person who promised himself for 20 years that he would run before he eventually did!

That’s quite a long time to make up your mind!

The problem after you’ve made up your mind to run is that you are still a long way from the Comrades start line and almost immediately second thoughts and doubts start to creep in, and often it’s only the fact that you can’t keep your mouth shut and you’ve told people that you are going to run Comrades that keeps you going. In many cases you elect to shift the goalposts a little from this year to next year’s Comrades in order to give yourself more time. 

The trouble with that is the shift in the goalposts often comes with an easing up on the training and in most cases stopping completely “because my knees are taking too much strain”.  Old rugby injuries you understand!

Where the runner doesn’t move goalposts and the training and racing distances get longer and longer there are other problems that come along.  Pains in places you didn’t know pains could be. Trips to physios and doctors and it’s only the end of March… but we carry on.

We feel better. We have qualified. We’re sometimes even running better times but it’s getting harder and harder to get out of bed in the morning because it’s getting darker and colder. Some of our training partners have fallen by the wayside.  Old rugby injuries you understand!

We start hearing horror stories about things called Inchanga, Botha’s Hill and Cowies Hill and there’s talk about cut off times and being pulled off the road if we don’t reach certain places by certain times. Our mind starts to do cartwheels.

We go out and buy ourselves a very expensive watch that works out our speed per kilometre, which by the time we get to the 65km mark on race day is going to drive us completely insane as we work out that we’re running at 3 mins 15 per km!  No! That can’t be right!

The marker boards count down in Comrades but nobody told us that. Now we’re trying to calculate our times with that fancy watch and marker boards that count down and so we try again.

Ah! That’s better! We’re doing 25mins per km.  No! Hang on! Now we’re in very serious trouble.

Bottom line – save yourself the money. You don’t need the fancy watch. Use an ordinary wristwatch. You start at 5:30 in the morning and you need to be at the finish before 5:30 in the evening and at certain cut off points by certain times of the day and the organisers tell you what time of day those are.  Keep things as simple as possible!

So where is this all leading me? 

You may not have noticed but I haven’t said a thing about how you should prepare physically for Comrades.  There are plenty of people around who can do that for you.  Some of them will confuse the hell out of you but I leave you to work out which training schedule works best for you – just don’t jump from one to the other.  

Everything I’ve said has to do with that part of you from the neck up!

That crucial 90% of Comrades from the neck up that needs to be very well prepared to get you through from Pietermaritzburg to Moses Mabida Stadium on the 10th of June.  The legs and the physical training only account for 10% on Comrades day.  We’ve been saying that for more years than I can remember.

I remember being told as a very young Comrades runner 50 years ago that if my legs could get me through 60km, they could get me through 90km.  The other 30km is up to your head but if that hasn’t been prepared properly you are in for a rough day.  We’ve always said the Down Run actually starts as you get into Pinetown!

I’m certainly not by any stretch of the imagination a hero of any sort when it comes to running Comrades but I started 14 of them and I finished all 14 inside the time limit which in those days was 11 hours and not once did it even enter my mind during the worst of my runs to stop and get into a car.

In the 1971 Down Run I started with what we later found out was ITB but at the time we had no idea what the pain at the side of the knee was so I ran. Or at least I tried to run but by the time I got to Pinetown I wasn’t able to run so I had only one thing I could do and getting into a car wasn’t the one thing. Walking to the finish was the only option I had, so I did that and I got home in a touch under 10 hours and I put that down to the fact that I was strong mentally and I always worked on that preparation in all my Comrades.

That day in 1971 if I hadn’t prepared mentally there is simply no way I would have finished and it was only that mental strength, that got me through in what I regard as a fairly respectable time in what I have very recently learnt is regarded as the longest ever Comrades distance-wise.

The longest ever Comrades and I walked from Pinetown, effectively with a leg that wasn’t working but my head was!

If you have put in the distance in your legs and you have done at least one but preferably two or three runs of 60km or maybe a bit more, your legs will see you through on “the day”.

So how do you prepare mentally for Comrades?  There are just a couple of things to do before race day. Those 60km runs in your legs go into your mental “bank account” and count big time on Comrades day when you remember that at the end of those training runs you felt “pretty OK” to face further distance so now your physical is taken care of and you can focus on the mental preparation that literally hundreds of Comrades runners ignore at their peril.

So what do you do to train mentally?

The major thing is to get to know the Comrades route. This is easy if you live in KZN and get to run on it regularly and things like Inchanga, Botha’s Hill and Cowies Hill become regular parts of your training runs.

Not so easy if you live far away and the first time you see the route is on race day or the day before.

I have done a detailed description of the route and it’s available on another chapter of this blog. Study it and get to know it.  Not just a passing glance. Read it several times so that when you get to know the various places where you are.

Then the crucial thing you must do is break up your Comrades into small pieces.  There are usually seven time based cut off points (including the finish) and the longest is usually no more than about 19km or so.  Whatever you do, don’t stand at the start thinking you have to run 90km to Moses Mabida Stadium in Durban.  That will just blow your mind.  

Stand at the start and think that all you are going to do is your 19km run (or whatever the distance is to the first cut-off) and that’s all.

You have all run 19km and much more in training so that’s not an issue at all so your longest run on Comrades day is 19km or so.  The next cut off is about 11km further so that’s your next run.

So that means that your first run on Comrades day is about 19km. Your next run is about 11km and so you go for the rest of the day.  Don’t worry about anything other than the run you’re busy with.  No point in stressing about Inchanga when you’re in Camperdown!   Concentrate on Camperdown when you’re in Camperdown!

So on Comrades day you will end up doing seven little runs.  That’s all it is. Seven little runs! That’s not too much to ask of anyone.

One long run of 90km is a huge job – but seven little runs.  That’s no big deal!

The great thing about these cut off points is that Comrades tells you where they are and then they put up huge big boards about 1km from the cut-off point to let you know it’s up ahead. 

So all you have to do is to learn to identify the landmarks of the cut-off points and then tie them back to the route description I have given you.  Six of them on the route!

This is getting easier and easier all the time!  That’s why I say Comrades isn’t hard.

Do the hard work before the 10th of June and enjoy Comrades day.  That’s what it’s there for.

 

 MARCH 2018

Posted in PERSONAL STORY

2018 MY VERY SPECIAL COMRADES

I have written about the fact that I’ll be attending my 60th Comrades in 2018 and I have spoken about it and I have also written and spoken about the fact that it’s the 50th anniversary of my first running of Comrades in 1968.

SELFI have often told the story of how as a 9 year old boy I stood at the side of the road in Pinetown and watched the Comrades Marathon for the first time and was immediately captivated by it and I turned to my father who had taken me to watch the race and said to him “when I’m big I’m going to run this” and I have said over and over that I don’t know why I said this to him or what prompted me to say this. Whatever it was it proved to be something that was to define the path of my life in so many ways over the years since then, both in business and personally.

In 2017 I met one of our top women runners, Ann Ashworth, and I discovered that she has almost the exact same story as mine. Her father took her to watch the race when she was very young, younger than I had been when I saw my first Comrades and obviously many years after my experience, and she stood at the side of the road and as the runners came past she turned to her Dad and said “when I’m big I’m going to run this”. Comrades has had also had huge impact on her life.

I don’t know how many people have a similar story to the two of us but I certainly know many people who have thrown themselves into this race and given so much to it.  People who have their Comrades numbers as their car registration numbers or part of their email addresses for example as I have.  Just a small example but that sort of thing but at the risk of boring you to tears please allow me to tell you my story again.

After having not missed being at a Comrades since watching that race which Gerald Walsh won in 1956, on the 31st of May 1968 as a 21 year old young man I lined up at the start of the Comrades Marathon in Durban as a first time runner and 10 hours and 25 minutes later I crossed the finish line in Pietermaritzburg to earn the first of my 14 Comrades medals.

The strange thing is whilst I’ll be celebrating the 50th anniversary of my first Comrades, I don’t remember much about that day. I only remember about half a dozen or so bits of what happened during the day. I remember a few things that happened before I trotted down into Drummond and looked at my watch (an ordinary wristwatch) and it was 8 minutes past 11 and thinking that was OK and that if I could repeat that for the second half to Pietermaritzburg I’d be fine in terms of the 11 hours we had in those days.

I remember stopping about 200 metres before I got to Enthembeni School to listen to the radio – no TV sets back then – that a spectator had as Jackie Mekler – in my opinion one of the greatest Comrades runners – came in to the finish for his 5th win, a touch after 12 noon and thinking that I could only hurt for another 5 hours because then it would be 5pm and I would either be at the finish or I would have to stop because I would have run out of time and I had done 6 hours already so I and the pain were over half way.

Then I remember very little more until I reached Polly’s.  Going up Polly’s that first Comrades of mine is crystal clear to this day. I knew how I was going to do that. I had planned that over and over before race day.  200 paces run. 100 paces walk. 200 paces run. 100 paces walk. 200 paces run. 100 paces walk and so on whether I was tired or not that’s what I was going to do and that’s what I did and soon the top was there.

POLLYS 1968The result was that Polly’s, and in fact no hill on Comrades or any other race, was ever a problem because that’s the way I handled them all and I’ve often spoken about controlled walking many times over the years.  It’s as simple as that.

Does it hurt? Of course it hurts but it helps to get the pain over much quicker!  Remember the old adage?  If it didn’t hurt everyone would do it!

Back to that first Comrades and I remember nothing more until I came into the grounds of Collegians Club where we finished in those days. I don’t remember hearing any announcer and I don’t remember if there was one. Then suddenly it was all over and the watches had stopped at 10:25.  

4:25pm on the 31st of May 1968 and I had finished Comrades!

I was alone on the track. No other runners.  Just me.  We weren’t given our medals on the day as happens now. We had to attend a “Medal Parade” a few weeks later where they were presented to us or they were posted if runners couldn’t get to the Medal Parade.  The medals were engraved with our name and time.

COMRADES FINISH 1968

I did 5 hours and 8 minutes for the first half and 5 hours 17 minutes for the second half.  Still very proud of that split although I still have no idea what the distance of each half was.  I didn’t care and I still don’t! 

I had trained for four and a half months from absolute scratch to get there but I was very strong mentally because I had given lots of attention to that side of things as well as the physical side and the way I went up Polly’s was proof of that.

So the 10th of June 2018 I’ll be 71 and I’ll be attending my 60th Comrades and at the same time celebrating the 50th anniversary of that first run in 1968.  I find it hard to believe that its 50 years ago but it is and so much water has flowed under that bridge since then but there are two things that have stayed in the same place.

Durban and Pietermaritzburg!

The start and finish may have been moved around a bit but Durban and Pietermaritzburg are still where they’ve always been! The distance may have changed a bit over different years but the race is always between those two cities and they’re where they’ve always been! 

I have often been asked what distances I ran in my various Comrades.  I have no idea how far any of them were.  The distance made not one scrap of difference to me nor should it to anyone running Comrades.  I’ve asked a couple of winners if they knew what distance they ran and those I asked also didn’t know. I was told to get to the start before 6am and run to the finish before 5pm as it was in those days – so I did!

 

I’ve missed only three races since 1956 and those were deliberate misses which I did after being at 50 races in succession and I did so because I thought that I had probably got Comrades out of my system by then. Those three were 2006, 2007 and 2008 and by the time the 2008 race came round I was going crazy because I wasn’t there and I even took myself overseas so that I didn’t feel it but it didn’t help. I sat in front of a computer all day in the UK and watched as much of the race as I could that was streamed live via the internet so whilst I regard myself as not having been there, I certainly watched as much of it as I could from 10,000kms away!

I didn’t plan that the two anniversaries (attending my 60th and the 50th anniversary of my first run) would both fall in 2018 and it was only a few years ago that I realised that they do.

Anyway I hadn’t got it out of my system after the 50 years and 2009 I was back at Comrades and have been every year since and as long as I am able to do so will continue attending.  My next target is the 2021 Comrades. 100 years since the first Comrades when Bill Rowan trotted into Durban to win in 8 hours 59 minutes. That’s only 3 years away so all being well I should make that!

My next target after that is 2025. The 100th race.  I was privileged to have run the 50th one and to have notched up my personal best time so to be at the 100th whilst only as a spectator is an important goal. 

COMRADES 1975

I have been involved in many facets of Comrades. I started as a spectator and then a second in the days before refreshment stations when runners had their own personal seconds. I’ve also served on the Comrades organising committee in what was one of the most rewarding of experiences.

BARRY VARTY GREEN NUMBERI spent 18 years on the road reporting on the race “live” into news and sports bulletins for 702 Talk Radio and for many of those same years on arrival at the finish juggled my phone and a microphone as I also handled the stadium announcing as part of that team. It was also during that time that I was asked to handle the prizegiving one year and had the honour of meeting Madiba.  Something I will never forget.

IMG_20160306_100853I brought many great runners home from that announcers’ tower at the finish and if you were to ask me to single out one or two special moments I would have to say the day in 1989 when Frith van der Merwe ran 5:54 to finish 15th overall and set a woman’s time that I think is going to take a huge effort to beat and Bruce Fordyce’s 9th win in 1990.

I doubt that we’ll ever see 9 wins from a runner again, certainly not in what’s left of my lifetime.  I’m not certain that people fully understand what a feat it is to win Comrades once let alone 9 of them. Ask all those great runners who have failed to win whilst trying to do so and there is a long list I could rattle off of really top class distance runners who tried to win but couldn’t.

I’ve often been asked what the attraction of Comrades is that has drawn me back over and over for 60 years and I really don’t know what it is.  I can easily explain the years when I ran.  I can also easily explain the years when I was working as a journalist or stadium announcer but there are many who would say that the remaining years defy logic and I would be hard pressed to argue that. In fact I would have a bit of a problem arguing why I travel to Durban year after year to attend Comrades as a spectator.

Why I sit at the side of the road on race day cheering on a bunch of runners, most of whom I don’t know and those I do know are so busy fighting their enemy “time” that they don’t want to stop and talk anyway.

I don’t know why I go year after year to Expo to look at the same exhibitors offering almost the same things and why I shake my head along with some of the other “old timers” when we see obvious novices desperate to make sure they finish, prepared to try any product on offer that they think will get them to the finish on race day when all they really need to do is to get out there and run to the finish.

I can’t answer any of those questions and I wouldn’t even attempt to do so. It is one of those mysterious things that one is simply not able to answer.  One of those things that one can try to arrive at some sort of logical answer and still not find one, so long ago I realised that there is no point in trying and that I should simply accept that when I stood at the side of the road as a 9 year old boy in 1956 and watched Comrades for the first time that something magical happened.

There’s no debate that over those 60 years I have met some of the most amazing people, some of whom have become lifelong friends but there’s more to it than just that.  There was something so much more that did so much to shape my destiny and the direction of my life in so many wonderful ways.

That being the case, why try to find an explanation?

February 2018

Posted in COMRADES PERSONALITIES

CAMILLE HERRON

The name Camille Herron wasn’t all that well known in South African Comrades Marathon or road running circles before Comrades 2017 but it certainly is now.  Comrades day 2017 and the American runner led the women’s race from start to finish to come home in 6:27 and to become only the third American winner of Comrades in the history of the race.

It’s not only her performance on Comrades day that has brought her to the attention of South African runners but also what she has done since then with many shaking their heads in disbelief that anyone can do what she has done in so short a period.

No sooner had she won Comrades and she was back in action again when most Comrades runners were still in recovery time but let’s hear it from the lady herself.  I contacted her and she was more than happy to “chat” about her remarkable achievements in just seven months.

DJ:      2017 has been an amazing year for you with a couple of world records, a couple of US records and of course the Comrades Marathon title under your belt and I don’t think there can be too many people who can claim to have done that in the same year – in fact in the second half of the same year but what for you has been the highlight of your year?

CH:     Nothing I have done so far or could do in the future can top the thrill and honour of winning Comrades! It’s the ultimate race to win- to become only the 3rd American win it makes me feel very grateful and humbled by what my body can do! I actually had a hard time getting motivated to train again after Comrades—what do you do after reaching your #1 life goal?! I had to start writing down the rest of my goals. What’s followed since then is the realization that there is more to achieve beyond winning Comrades, although nothing can quite match it.

 

DJ:      Comrades has been a long term plan for you and in you said somewhere that started thinking about Comrades as long ago as 1995. Tell me how that all started for you and how sitting far away in the United States you came to learn about this race over almost 90km in South Africa?

CH:     Yes, I’m very fortunate that my first running book my Dad got me in Jr. High (1995) was Lore of Running by Timothy Noakes. My young brain couldn’t fully comprehend all the science in the book, but I loved reading the stories about the Comrades Marathon and the heroes of the race like Bruce Fordyce and Arthur Newton. It was hard for me to wrap my head around running that far. It was the only ultra I had heard of until recently. I knew I wanted to run it some day, but I couldn’t have imagined I’d have the talent to win it!

 

DJ:      The Two Oceans also featured somewhere in your introduction to South Africa.  Was that before your first visit to Comrades and how did that come about and has that been successful?

CH:     I first heard about Two Oceans from the elite coordinator for the NYC Marathon, David Monti, back in 2011. I had been racing back-to-back marathons with short recovery time between the races. He planted the seed for me to consider stepping up to ultras and look at Two Oceans. It ended up being my first ultra in 2013. I under-performed a bit by finishing 10th (moved up in place because of a Russian caught doping). I didn’t know how hard to push myself stepping up in distance. Everyone was talking about Comrades while I was over there, so I first tried it in 2014.

 

DJ:      You had a couple of visits to Comrades before it eventually all came together for you with the 2017 race and without any competition to worry about you seemed to have a fairly comfortable race from start to finish.  Was it a comfortable race or did it just look that way?

CH:     When I stepped it up to 100K in 2015, I was in a league of my own when I won the World title in 7:08 and came back 6 weeks later to break Ann Trason’s World Record for 50 miles on a hilly course in the rain/wind (5:38). I wanted to come back to Comrades and give the Course Records a shot. However, since then I’ve had some freak accidents tearing both hammies. Then in mid-March I accidentally tore my MCL at a trail race. I thought my dream was dashed once again! I had to take 2 weeks off and then had 8 weeks to train for Comrades- we made every day count.

I got back to 80% health and fitness. Judging by the heart-rate based pace (80% of HR max) I was going at 2 weeks before the race I knew I had a shot to contend for the win. I was very confident I could focus on this effort, run my own race, and be up front. I ran within myself on the first major climb and was anticipating trying to drop the pace once the course flattened after 40K. Between the exceptional heat and my hammy getting tight it made it tough to increase the pace to go after the course record. Having a large gap, I knew I could take my time at the aid stations to rehydrate (including enjoying some beer!). I continued to focus on pushing at 80% effort. I never felt exceptionally fatigued- it was mainly my tight hammy that weighed on my mind. Once I crested the Polly Shortt’s Hill, I knew I was going to win! It was exciting!!!

Crossing the line to win Comrades 2017

DJ:      Getting back to what you’ve done since Comrades.  What you have done is something that is pretty much unknown to the average Comrades or South African runner.

Four weeks after Comrades it was the Western States 100 and whilst that didn’t go according to plan you were still there.  Then a few months later and you were back and you broke the Women’s world 100 mile record at the Tunnel Hill 100 miler finishing ahead of all the men in that race and you took over an hour off the previous women’s world record.

Then another month later we find you in Arizona for Desert Solstice at the beginning of December and there on a 400 metre track you broke the US 50 mile record, the world 12 hour track record and the US 100km track record at the same event. 

That is an amazing performance. How much did that take out of you?

CH:     For me and probably most South Africans the year sort of revolves around Comrades as the ultimate goal! However, there are more races and goals to go after the rest of the year! I have to credit Ann Trason and many others who showed the way and pushed the limits of how quickly we can recover and how far and fast we can go. She won Comrade and Western States twice in the same yr. I had already pushed my own limits this way as a marathoner. To be doing it now in ultras is a fun test! Comrades is still a far ways off right now, so I still have a lot of time to re-focus on building towards it again. I’m well-trained and I don’t think the longer races take as much out of me as the shorter, faster races that ~tear up your muscles. It also gets easier to recover the more you race. I haven’t felt as beat up after Desert Solstice as I felt after the Tunnel Hill 100. I certainly won’t race this much or as extreme leading up to Comrades! I think the longer races and trail races build physical and mental strength. I can progress towards speed and being more recovered leading up to June.

 

DJ:      As you know I follow you on Twitter and after the Desert Solstice was all over you tweeted that after you broke the 100km record you felt a “bear on your back” and had to force yourself to go on for the 12 hour world record but you did.  Where did that strength come from?

CH:     For Desert Solstice I have to credit my husband for giving me a pep talk to get back out there! I have a strong mental will to reach my goals—getting that long-standing 12 hr World Record held by Ann Trason was something I felt I had to do. Once I got going again I was on a mission! I get mental strength from my training and thinking about all the things I’ve overcome as a runner and in life. Even watching the TV coverage of Comrades and hearing the commentators doubt that I could keep it up leading from the start, there was never a doubt in my mind that I was going to win. I was very confident in the effort I was giving and knowing what I’m capable of—this self belief holds true for any race. Being able to persevere and push through the low points has always been something I’m good at. Both of my parents were great athletes. I believe I got it from them to stay calm and composed under pressure, being both a basketball player and stage performance (dance, piano, band). I used to push myself at basketball in extreme heat until I’d black out- hearing stories from Dad this is what I thought I had to do to get better! I’d eat something and then come back out to play. It’s the culmination of these life experiences that helps me mentally and physically break through, stay positive, and continue to find mental inspiration.

DJ:      Are you not concerned that you are perhaps doing too much and that you are asking too much of your body and yourself?

CH:     I’ve had enough serious injuries to know that tomorrow isn’t guaranteed! I have to make it happen now while I still have my health and speed to do it. I’ve had a very long career already as a prolific marathoner and racer to know my limits and also how to recover quickly. I’m healthier when I’m training and racing consistently. I’m 35 now and I only have a small window to continue to chase the ultra speed records. I’m actually not racing as much as I used to (even if it appears I am racing a lot!). I’m focusing now on being at my best and more rested for the bigger and brighter goals like winning Comrades and continuing to break World Records. People like Ann Trason show us you can pursue even more epic feats, like winning Comrades and Western States in the same year.

 

DJ:      We know you’re coming back to Comrades 2018 and you’ve hinted that you are looking at the record and if that happens you would be only the fourth woman to go under 6 hours on the Down Run.  What are your plans between now and the 10th of June 2018 – Comrades day?

Will you be doing any more racing before then or will you be concentrating on building up to Comrades and at the same time recovering from a very tough second half of 2017?

CH:     I’m really feeling great right now and want to continue to keep the momentum going. Staying healthy is our #1 priority, so I work diligently with my healthcare team! I’d love to give the 24 hr World Record a shot this winter. I also need to qualify for Western States at a trail race. Otherwise in April-June I will be focused on preparing for Comrades and being sharp and rested to go after the win and course record. Ann Trason is one of the few women to have broken 6 hrs, so to be surpassing her records from 50-100 miles gives me the confidence I can do it!

 

DJ:      Finally. Tell me about the beer. Everybody asks about the beer you drink whilst you are running and I think you had two during Comrades and I have had people saying to me that perhaps they should try it.  Does it help you or is it just a refreshing drink on the road because you enjoy it?

CH:     When you’re running a gruelling, long race like Comrades I think it helps to have something you enjoy eating or drinking at some point later in the race! I figured out the beer thing by accident at a trail race over a yr ago—it helped me overcome a bonking point in the race. We now have incorporated it into part of my race plan—at least for me it helps settle my stomach and give some mental clarity (in moderation of course!). I look forward to it every time. I enjoyed Jack Black’s Brewers Lager at Comrades.

 

Perhaps you now know a little more about the lady who won Comrades 2017 and since she and I had this little “chat” she has made her intentions for 2018 clear and over the first weekend of the year she won the Bandera 100km and Trail Run in Texas, one of the toughest trail runs and one of the oldest.

Camille we look forward to seeing you back in June!

 

January 2018

Posted in COMRADES ADVICE

COMRADES IS 90% FROM THE NECK UP :

This blog was written from my own experience as a finisher in Comrades in times between 8:29 and 10:43 in a collection of runs over 14 years.  What I am saying here has certainly worked for me to get me home in that time range and without any great degree of discomfort.

In saying that Comrades is 90% from the neck up I am assuming that the reader who is running Comrades has trained physically and properly and has taught his or her legs how to run at least 60Kms on at least one but preferably two or even more occasions in the four month build up to Comrades. If the Comrades runner who is the reader of this blog has done that, then Comrades generally becomes 10% physical provided he or she doesn’t go into Comrades either sick or injured.

I had a chat to 2016 women’s winner, Charne Bosman, who agrees with me that the mental side of things is massive and is certainly as high as 80% to 90% come Comrades day, again provided you have done the physical training and you are not sick.

CHARNE BOSMAN (2)

I also asked my good friend and winner of the 1966 Comrades, Tommy Malone what he thought about the importance of the mental preparation is for Comrades and his answer was simple. He said

“A strong mind can carry a weak body but a weak mind gets you nowhere”

TOMMY MALONE 1966 FINISH

So having spoken to both Charne and Tommy I want to talk to readers about the mental training that needs to be done from now – the middle of April – up to Comrades in preparation for the big day – the part of your Comrades that happens from the neck up!

Your mental training is not something that is done over a period of one day.  It is something you need to do for the better part of the remaining time from now until race day.  It’s that important.  Many of your top runners are getting assistance from sports psychologists so important do they regard the mental side of things and those top runners are not only your potential winners so that makes you stop and think!

When I was preparing for my first Comrades way back in the dark ages under the watchful eye of that wonderful old man, the late Ian Jardine, he told me that 90% of my Comrades was going to be from the neck up and that if my legs could run 60km they could run 90km and that the rest was going to be up to my head to get me through. I believed him and I worked towards Comrades on that basis every time I ran.

I have been blessed by having always been very strong mentally when it came to Comrades day and never once did I ever give thought to stopping during the race or not finishing even on the three occasions when I was taking a bit of strain.  It was my mental strength that carried me through on those runs.

So let’s get onto this mental thing I’m talking about and it starts quite a while before Comrades day I discovered.

Very recently, and remember that I last ran Comrades exactly 30 years ago in 1987, I woke up for some reason at around 5am and couldn’t go back to sleep. It was pitch dark outside and I started thinking back to those far off days when I was training for Comrades and here we are in mid-April, the most important of all months for Comrades training.

About 6 or so weeks of serious training to go and at 5 in the morning the alarm goes off and it’s time to get up and get out onto the road on a weekday to do that run. It’s cold if you live in places like Pietermaritzburg or Gauteng. It’s still dark and very often those weekday runs are done alone and you have just about had enough – but you are too far in to call it a day and pull out of the whole thing. Too fit to give up now but yet you still have around six more weeks of this to go.

The weekends are not the problem whether you are doing a long run with your mates or an organised club run or race. That’s different. It’s those mid-week runs. Can’t not do them. They are simply too important to miss and if you’re amongst the working class it’s a 5am start to get onto the road.

This is where the head has to begin to do its work and we are still the better part of 6 weeks of serious training away from Comrades! It would be so easy to just turn over and sleep for another hour, especially if you are not meeting anybody to run with but you know deep down that if you do that today, it could happen tomorrow and if it happens again tomorrow it could also happen the next day and the next and all the work you have put in since January will slowly start to disappear out the window so after this argument with yourself you get up, get dressed and get out onto the road into the dark and cold.

Once out on the road the guilt hits you big time that you almost cheated yourself out of your run this morning and so this internal war rages on for the last 6 or so weeks on those cold dark mornings when, all alone, you force yourself to get out there.

So now you’ve in all likelihood taught your legs to run at least 50 plus kms so come Comrades day and by fighting yourself to get out of bed on those cold dark mornings you have also started to sort out the mental side of things – but it doesn’t end there. In fact that’s just the beginning.

Those fortunate folk who live in and around Durban and Pietermaritzburg or anywhere in between will almost certainly have done some training on the route but if you are from anywhere else and you are perhaps one of the huge number of novices this year who have never even seen the route you need to start doing some more training of that part of you that makes up the 90% required on Comrades day to carry you through and you need to start that training NOW!

But how do you do that? You start by studying the route. Over and over. Get to know the landmarks. Get to know the various points where you need to be at what times and get to know them well and break up your race according to those landmarks so that your head can handle chunks of distances you have run before. With this, Comrades has actually helped you and most people haven’t even realised it.

In all my Comrades I never ran more than about 20Km at any one time. I never concerned myself with anything beyond the 20Km with which I was busy at any one time and when I had completed that bit, it was gone forever and I didn’t worry about it again. I then focused on the next “chunk” however long it might have been, but it too, was never very long.

In other words your first “chunk” can be to the first cut off point in Pinetown and Comrades have kindly told you what the latest time is you have to be there. Don’t worry about running time. Worry about what time of day it must be.

You have to be there at 10 past 8 at the latest and it’s about 19Km. You’ve run that distance in 2:40 before and probably many times so that’s not a problem so train your brain to understand that it’s the longest run of the day and even if it takes you 9 minutes to get across the start line it’s not a problem.

If you have done your homework properly you will know that it’s about 19Km to the first cut off and that’s all. You shouldn’t be worrying about it on the day. All you need to worry about is where that point is and what time of day you need to be there. When you get there forget about what you’ve done and focus on your next run.  Pinetown to Winston Park.  That’s not far either.  Don’t worry about anything else.  When people around you are talking about Inchanga and Polly’s – let them but don’t join the conversation.  It has nothing to do with you.  It isn’t part of your run from Pinetown to Winston Park.  Field’s Hill is at that time.

See how much of this is from the neck up?   If you don’t get this right that 9 minutes to get across the start line is going to be playing on your mind all of the 87Km that you shouldn’t be thinking about anyway!

Don’t whatever you do, stand at the start in Durban and think to yourself that you have 87Km to cover. That will just do your head in.  It’s more than the best of us can handle!

And remember that Comrades have kindly stuck up huge boards telling you where the cut offs are and you can get those off their website and that’s what you spend the day doing.  Here’s an example of what the boards look like.

CUT OFF BANNER

Run a collection of 7 short runs (not races) from cut off to cut off for the day. You simply have to train your brain to know where they are and to recognise them and to know when you have to be there.

What you’ll probably find when you do your schedule (or pacing chart as some prefer to call it) and use it and no other because you have done it to suit you and give yourself a 15 minute time range to get to each cut off point. In other words say that you want to be at the first one between that time and that time (those times 15 minutes apart).

Remember it’s time of day and not overall running time that interests you.  The reason for that is that you don’t want to have to start adding and subtracting when you are starting to get tired later on.  The number of people I see wearing watches that can almost make scrambled eggs on toast is mind blowing. What for?

By the time you have done the better part of 65Km you need everything your brain has to offer to help you to get to the end and not to start trying to work out how many minutes per Km you did for the last 7.2753Kms!  Who cares?  I promise you that by the time you get to 65Km you are certainly not going to care.

So how do you learn where these landmarks are?  Simple.  Comrades tell you firstly on their website where they are and then “on the day” they put up huge big boards that you can’t miss so you know that you are at the end of one little run and time to start your next little run and time to forget about everything you have already done.

Go to my blog entitled “Up Run Route Description” and it’s all there in as much detail as I have been able to provide as well as any known dangers for the section you are looking at.  Incidentally Comrades are going to be publishing my route description in the Comrades brochure you get at Comrades Expo and which has been endorsed by 4 time winner Alan Robb.  Unfortunately for those who don’t see this blog it’s going to be a little like cramming for the finals but you have an advantage. Use it and your day will be a lot easier.

So there you have it.  The work between now and Comrades is to “train the brain” to get it to do 90% of the work on Comrades day.

Fight it when it tells you to ignore the alarm on those cold dark mornings.  Those runs have to be done no matter how hard they might be to do.  You have put in the work since January to get to where you are now. Don’t waste it now.

Study the route over and over and find out where the cut off points are and how far it is between them and at what time (time of day) you have to be there. You’ll thank me for this after the race when you realise you didn’t have to try to work out Kms per minute.

Then go out and enjoy the fact that you only have to run about 7 little runs during the day and that the longest is just under 20Km and the shortest is shorter than your average club time trial.

Now how easy is that, but you have to do the mental training and you have to start doing it now!

 

April 2017

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